The Masai Mantra

Every story has to have a beginning and an end. A good story has something in between. A build up, a break down, a message, a lesson, emotions and sentiment, well placed facts and theories and fictional perspectives.

This story is about contrast. A contrast of worlds, characters and colours. There is a lesson, yes. But lessons can be heard and not acted upon. Lessons can be taught but not learnt. They can easily be seen and then ignored. They can be ripped from context and simplified or manipulated to suite the observer’s willingness to stay blissfully ignorant and unaware of the message or what is required of a good man…what it takes to be a good man, a courageous man.

What does it take? I wonder while I drift through my troubled headspace…my lack of headspace as I stand in the aisle of Kenyan Airways. Waiting to disembark into Nairobi. I have listened to a young Kenyan girl tell her remarkable story of how she dreamt of being a pilot and now she has written her final exam and will be flying soon. I have listened to the laughter and excitement of the Italian newlyweds behind me as they near the start of what I hope will be a “safari experience of a lifetime”. I have listened to the beautiful melody that markets Kenya so well over their onboard entertainment, to sounds of the ocean, to Lisa Gerrard’s greatest hits. Anything to block out the negative energy that every passenger carries onto that 1am flight from Johannesburg. The culmination of this audible medicine has indeed rested the turmoil within but “karibu Kenya” has ended now. Now there is just noise again.

The still but frantic throng of people waiting, unnecessarily impatient to get off this burden of a flight strain my meditative efforts. I look forward into another mans eyes. Facing the wrong way and confused as to why this sea of bodies does not part for him as he wishes to get his bag in the overhead compartment at the furthest side of the plane to where he decided to sit. Below me a man reads through a newspaper. Refusing to be a part of the scramble for pole position for the start of this race off the plane. He ingests article after article on how one politician has let down his country to the next. He turns the page. A headline seizes my attention. He turns the page again, fast. So fast. Fast enough to contain the beast he wishes not to confront. “Right whale population in peril”. How different you and I are, I think to myself. How different we all are in this juxtaposition of hurried indifference that only the cabin of a parked plane can manufacture. I edge toward the exit, towards freedom. Past the presumptuous firsts class politician thief’s in their firsts class poses, firsts class attitudes and first-class misconceptions of leadership and dress codes or class of travel being the same thing. Past the smuggery, the uncomfortable closeness, that gush of cold fresh air that forces its way through the gap between the plane door and the airbridge. Past the periling thoughts of the state of Africa.

The act is over now. Gone are the pretenders and the lands of lawless laws. The overwhelming realness of the whole thing takes its turn. Its neither clinical nor logical. Its not exact and we can’t really illustrate, accurately, the feeling when you first feel the warm winds of the Mara blowing away the maladies of society. It rustles the grasses around you, gently shaking you and your dormant senses awake, as you step off the plane or out the jeep and is scented by thousands of miles of millions of unique stories. The bees and the pollen, the birds and the trees, the animals and the dust they kick into the sky. All carrying the message to you. The message that your are home.

No, there is no favourite couch nor fluffy cat perched on our lap purring away the stresses of work and “life”. There is no television allowing an escape from it all nor familiar brick walls and concrete allowing you to delusion yourself into a comfortable numbness. There is only the ancient and sacred bond between mankind and the wild that we so desperately try to break, for with this connection comes with the fear of letting go. Letting go of the rope that your hands bleed over as you try to climb further away and yet closer to higher numbers in your bank account, on your speedometer or on the social media leader board. We contest to talk or to reach more people instead of to teach more people as in order to teach you must first learn and the race for social media recognition has little time for learning.  We race away on the endless race away from whats important and what is truly conducive to happiness and wholeness. We race away from our origins, our true home.

The quiddity of the Mara is not, contrary to what so many believe, built from the personified characters of individual animals such as “Scar” that sports a blemish across his eye that makes him easily relatable to a certain Disney character with a similar mark and name. An old wound caused by a spear thrown by men intent on protecting their cattle against Scar and the lionesses of his pride. A story that stems from a long time battle between man and beast and one I only wish to snack on in this article.

Its inherent nature, actually, lies out of reach. Somewhere between the blue above and the yellow below. A limitless stretch of horizon that is only quarrelled by immense cumulonimbus clouds that bring forth summers rains. An enigmatic place ahead of man’s attempts to comprehend and control everything in which he lays his eyes upon. However, there is a freedom there. Albert Einstein once said “the most beautiful gift of nature is that it gives one pleasure to look around and try to comprehend what we see”. “Try” he said. There is no need to have a precise understanding anymore nor to feel in control. There is just a sense of belonging that takes over as the Mara forces your senses into life and awakens the listless body while you drive through its vast grasslands on the way to camp. Your thoughts are no longer something you fight against to quite your raging mind. They become a soft orchestra of gentle questions. Why do the elephants consider us that way, why does the hyena run for the ridge intently, why do the wildebeest build against the river so and what is all this I can feel again! You chuckle to yourself as you approach your heavenly escape, tucked along the banks of the Mara River.

A woman greets us with a seismic smile and a man of a muscled body and a muscled mind extends his hand in welcome. “Karibu” he says. In the Maa language this word simply means welcome but when it comes from such a man it is the compression of multiple benevolent and attentive intentions. The Maasai don’t need to full gaps with poetry and ten-dollar words in order to make obvious their ways. A firm hand shake and rock steady eye contact tells you everything you need to know. They wear a red robe, a shùkà, similar only to what we know as a picnic blanket. Checkered and simple, wrapped around the waist and shoulders, yet combined with their beads and elegant stature they appear more dapperly than any ten thousand dollar suite and the ridged individual hiding within it. Never has it been so easy to follow without fearing any loss of pride. You follow under the shade of orange leafed crotons. Down path ways that bring you closer to the grunting hippo of the Mara River. He walks and talks as he glides through the shade of these trees so synonymously. So connected to the natural world around him. Using just hand gestures and a few words of comfort you are helplessly placed into your tent and left to your thoughts. The veranda looks onto the river where hippo jostle and an immense crocodile lays upon the bank. This is when you give your mind the chance to question how you made it here. How 24 hours ago you were surrounded by a synthetic world and now you can only hear bird song and wind and the splashing of wrestling hippo. Your heart beats a little faster as your mind continues to drift. Now it looks at the question of what is next…

A different breeze blows now. You are on the move. A wake ascends thermals to the west and a lioness walks to your east. She walks slowly with her head high and her ears and eyes stiff and direct. She seeks what we seek. The sound of rushing water, dust rising into the sky and thunderous hooves as the building wildebeest have decided to plunge into the river and cross. Their panic and hysteria blinding them to their flanks. Making them a near effortless meal for the lioness who must hurry now before they complete the crossing and regain their acute senses. We hurry with her. Then, after, we search. We search the ridges for that timorous black rhino. We wait. We wait for those tiny eyes to pear back at us as one month old cubs wake from their day long siesta. We search again. We wait again. The day slips away. Orion hunts the horizon now. His scorpion foe opposite him. The night-scape characters take their turn and we turn fireside for reminiscing and banter.

Conversations rumble down the chairs that encircle the fire. laughing and remarking themselves back and forth like the flames of the fire itself. Only to pause now and then to allow a roaring lion the silence that is due to him. Grinning hopelessly at the sound, your eyes open again and we “chew the rag” a little more. A figure takes shape by your side and the silence holds. A Maasai stands amongst us now. He does not ask for the conversation to stop yet the warrior caste of their culture carries with it a presence that needn’t seek for attention. They are not known for their loquacity yet here we sit waiting for him to speak. Few tribes can talk of their ways with such humility as the Maasai that still respect their ancient traditions and beliefs. He speaks of the importance of cattle and how each colour means something different. Blue is the symbol of water, white of peace and red is the colour of the warrior. He explains why they chip a gap between their front teeth for straw like devises such as the tip of a hollowed out cow horn to pass through incase of illness that symptomises lock-jaw. He explains their diet of milk, blood and meat and he talks of the path of young men to be become warriors. How as boys they are circumcised without anaesthetic and how it is forbidden to show pain or worry throughout the initiation. No gloating of stories of glory or bravery, I notice. I know a fair amount about the history of the Masai so know that these stories are there somewhere. He shifts onto the subject of their principles and moral beliefs. He talks of how elders are to be adhered to and he repeats a “big” word that most modern living men can no longer fathom its meaning. “Its about rrrespect”.

He rolls the “R’s” to give the word emphasis and illustrate the urgency of understanding its true meaning. He repeats it over and over again like a mantra given to a dedicated monk in learning. I try to swallow the lump in my throat. Blinking, almost flinching,  every time he repeats the word as if it held weight and he would wack me with it if I didn’t listen intently. I wonder about an epiphany. A word is actually just a word. Without effect or purpose the words significance is trivial. The societies of men and woman who sit around him brought this word to the lands of his ancestors yet the Masai have lived the meaning of the word long before western missionaries ventured into the Mara for the first time. So who understands its meaning more, I ponder. The culmination of most social media icons I know, their self proclaimed ability to influence and their thousands upon thousands of followers, that are unable to teach such a simple lesson or inspire its practice in life or even know its meaning themselves yet here is a man with chopped up car tires as shoes talking with organic fervour about something we all thought we knew so much about. Something he still lives by. Something he still understands. Something that holds more importance in his life than any material thing could ever. Respect. Respect for each other, for nature and for oneself. His audience is small yet his audience is changed and, I notice, there is still no tall stories of danger and bravery.

The Masai once had to pass through another initiation ceremony. One that has enthralled the world and enchanted the imaginations of filmmakers, writers and story tellers of every kind for decades. A narrative that, if not captured on film, would not have been believable and would only serve as a Hollywood chronicle. The story of how young Masai men would hunt lion with nothing but spears and shields made of animal hide. When considering the immense power of a lion it is hard to understand why anyone would embark on this supposedly suicidal mission. Able to pull a nine hundred kilogram buffalo to its knees it would surely twist up a Maasai without any effort at all but under the guidance of experienced warriors these small groups of initiates would more often than not leave the battle field victorious. Scarred, sometimes, even dead,  but those still breathing walking proud as a Maasai warrior. Passing his final test of manhood.

I know the Maasai who has just lectured us on the his ways of life was a warrior, in these past times and now, and so thought he would have been involved in many high-octane and highly dangerous lion hunts where men were being tossed around weightlessly and the air was filled with the roars of an enraged lion and the chants of his attackers. A barbaric scene to most of the western world, understandably, but an eruptive and violent ebullition that created a scene that even the most addicted cinephile would appreciate. It also was the most important day of a young Masai mans life. Today, plummeting lion populations have forced governments to prohibit the Maasai from hunting lion and I wonder if it is because of this that he did not share tales of hunts of lion. Maybe he did not get the chance to join a hunt after all. Betty Friedan quoted “men weren’t really the enemy- they were fellow victims suffering from and outmoded masculine mystique that made them feel unnecessarily inadequate when there were no bears to kill”. I thought about him and this quote as our hairs on our body returned to their resting position after the Maasai concluded the evening with the a traditional Maasai dance and call-and-response song that chills the spine but is as synonymous with the Mara and quite similar to the sound of the pulsating rhythm of hooves across the grasslands from migrating herds. I thought maybe he hadn’t hunted lion before and that he felt inadequate so would not share stories on this subject as he had none. He would if he had, surely. Any store teller would be a fool to not included his best stories in his novel, I presume. I decide I can only find out one way.

I ease back into the subject with Dickson and Tenkei shortly after people start dispersing to their tents for the night. Two Maasai of about 50 years old. Old enough to have lived in the era of lion hunting. Dickson led the speech on the Maasai culture and now that he and Tenkei were alone I gingerly asked about their experiences with lion. Asking in a way that gave them many exists away from the subject if they didn’t want to speak of it. Asking in an indirect way if they had been on a lion hunt before. Dickson looked at me, his eyes angled skyward as if he was counting in his head. His hand rose and started wavering, indicating that he may be thinking of his best guess and doesn’t have a definitive answer. “Mmm at least ten, maybe 15 times…actually more” he’s says. Older warriors were required to escort young initiates into these battles, to guide them away from a slaughter and so Dickson being involved in so many hunts was plausible. Chuckling his way into the conversation Tenkei recounts a memory. He tells “I even remember when a lion had pinned me to the ground. His claws were in my lower stomach” he gestured towards where the appendix would lie. “I thought I was dead this time but with a spear, Dickson was able to save my life and kill the lion”. They both continued onto other subjects as if they had just told me about their trip to the grocery store…while I scraped my jaw off the ground.

My admiration for them and Masai like them grew tremendously after that conversation. It didn’t matter to them wether we thought them brave or not. It didn’t matter how many lion hunts they had been on and they certainly didn’t seek self-worth using their stories of near death encounters of which I now knew they had many. It wasn’t important to them. They were Masai and they knew what they were regardless of whether they hunted a lion or not. They were self aware and they knew what really mattered. I was so busy wrapping my ahead around what I had just experienced that I failed to notice a hippo sleeping on the path on the way to my tent until I was only a few meters behind him. I froze in attempt not to startle him but it was too late. The hippo barked and spun onto his feet, facing in my direction. Luckily I had the cover of darkness and a small bush between the hippo and I but it was still not an ideal situation. Out the corner of my eye I saw a torch meandering through the bushes towards me. Knowing the sound of a startled hippo and hearing it come from the guest tents a staff member is coming to investigate, I presume. Knowing that just staying still was the best way out of this I used my cell phone to try signal to him where I was and that it all was fine. Allowing its “awake light” to briefly and dimly light up the area around me. The torch stopped. I knew now that the holder of the torch was aware of my position and current situation and would halt until things got better. The torch went off but faint footsteps could be heard and I could sense the torch holder was continuing his approach. Soon after I could make out Casino, another Masai who guards the camp amongst other things, in the faint light. He approached quietly, the hippo still deciding his next move, until he stood side by side with me. ”Jambo” he whispered. A simple greeting in Maa but yet another compression of “hello my friend. Don’t worry. I am here. We are in this together”.

What’s the lesson you may ask? Well…like a story a man has a beginning and an end. And like a good story, a good man has something good in between his beginning and his end. He has bad chapters and good ones, but the conclusion is written only by his hand and only he has the power to make it a good story in the end.


Andrew Danckwerts

2 thoughts on “The Masai Mantra



    Love reading this post Andrew. Brought back great memories of our experience. Looking forward to the next.
    Shirley & Kelly King
    Bozeman, Montana

    • Andrew Danckwerts

      Thank you Shirley and Kelly. really appreciate it and I hope you are both well. please do stay in touch and hopefully we see you back here some day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *